Monday, May 14, 2012

R.I.P. Erik Ness: Cowboy Bon Vivant

One of my best friends, Erik Ness, died this weekend. We've been buddies -- some might say unindicted co-conspirators -- since 1972 when we were both students at UNM.

I wrote his obituary for the paper.

Erik Ness, 2006, Placitas, NM
A version of this will be published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 15, 2012

Erik Ness, a longtime champion of the state agriculture industry, friend to politicians of every stripe, husband, father, grandfather and cowboy bon vivant, is dead.

Ness, 57, died Saturday at his home in Las Cruces following a struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Ness, who grew up in Alamogordo, attended the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University from which he graduated. He briefly worked as a reporter for KOB radio in the early 1980s.

But in 1982 he was hired by the New Mexico Farm & Livestock Bureau to be its communications director. In that job, which he kept until his retirement in 2010, Ness served as a press spokesman, produced radio programs and wrote and edited magazine articles for the organization.

An article published after his retirement in 2010 in New Mexico Farm & Ranch, the official publication of the bureau, quoted Ness talking about the agricultural community.

 “The people we work for are a colorful cast of characters,” he said. “They are real people with pioneer backgrounds, their ancestors came here in wagon trains, and that is interesting,”

Ness told the publication that through the years he’d been offered jobs in Albuquerque and Washington, D.C. but he turned them down saying, “... it is hard to hunt antelope in Albuquerque and D.C.”

His death prompted political figures to issue statements of praise.

"I had the privilege of knowing Erik for many years,” said Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday. “He was a kind and energetic person who served as a strong advocate for New Mexico's farm and ranching communities.  He will be sorely missed."

U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-Hobbs in a news release Monday called Ness “a good friend,” and said, “His service to the community and to the state of New Mexico and his life will long be remembered by all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

In a phone interview Monday, Public Regulation Commissioner Pat Lyons said he’d been friends with Ness for perhaps 25 years. “He made friends with everybody,” Lyons said. ”I did some of his radio shows, maybe three or four times. They went out nationwide and got played a lot on radio stations in the Corn Belt. I’d get calls from friends in Kansas saying, “I just heard you on the radio with Erik Ness.”

But it’s not only Republicans who are mourning Ness.

Former Gov. Toney Anaya on Monday recalled that Ness — who was a staunch Democrat before he worked for the Farm Bureau — served as his campaign spokesman in 1978 when he tried to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici. “When I was governor, I appointed him to a state board,” Anaya recalled. “He remained a good friend.”

Kentucky Club 87
Ness and me outside of The Kentucky Club in
Juarez, Mexico, circa 1987
When news of his death was posted on Facebook and Twitter Saturday, two of the first people to respond were former state Democratic Chairman Brian Colón (”What a loss,”  Colón tweeted. “Erik was a good man and friend to many.”) and former Albuquerque Mayor Marty Chavez.

Chavez posted on Facebook, “He had a tremendous amount to be proud of — the tragedy is that he was just starting to blossom as a writer and musician — his real love ...”

Ness’ love for music, especially country music, was a major passion. He played guitar and wrote songs. Among his friends was singer Michael Martin Murphey, a former Taos County resident, who he helped promote.

In a telephone conversation last month, Ness was in good spirits and said he wasn’t suffering physical pain. But he said he realized his time was near.

Friends have planned a celebration of Ness’ life beginning at 1:30 p.m. Friday at the state Farm & Ranch Museum in Las Cruces.

He is survived by his wife Sharon Sumner-Ness of Las Cruces, Daughter Emily Ness Gaffney of Albuquerque, sons Erik and Garrett of Las Cruces, one grandchild and another on the way.